It was a celebration of all things Star Wars at Jaya One recently, as “This is the May – Nar Shaddaa Day” – organized by the Star Wars Malaysia Fan Club (SWMFC) – held its first fan event after a two-year hiatus.
May, of course, is Star Wars month (May the 4th be with you!); and the event saw dozens of cosplayers, dressed to the nines in their best Star Wars outfits. There were also booths selling exclusive Star Wars merchandise, art exhibitions, games, puppet making workshops, and performances.
I’m not a big Star Wars fan (I keep mixing up my Wookies and Ewoks), but I’ve seen the films, and I think the original Star Wars story was brilliant for its time, and yet to be paralleled in the world of science fiction and futuristic fantasy.
My main reason for coming here was actually to watch the Star Wars Wayang Kulit performance (more on that later!), but since we had some time before the performance, the Hubs and I explored the main concourse, where most of the booths were set up. There were some pretty nifty things on display, including limited edition toys, props, and collectors items from overseas.
The highlight of the event for me was the Fusion Wayang Kulit show, a unique performance featuring traditional Malaysian puppetry (wayang kulit) fused with modern pop culture elements; in this case, Star Wars. It was held at the PJ Live Arts centre next to Jaya One’s main building. The puppets are made from leather, propped on sticks, and moved by the puppet master behind a screen.
Fusion Wayang Kulit was founded by Tintoy Chua and Take Huat in 2012, aimed at revitalizing the dying art by incorporating modern elements into it. The pair approached Kelantanese wayang kulit master (Tok Dhalang) Pak Dain for their project, taking meticulous care to ensure the roots of the plays are respected while giving it a breath of fresh air. The rest, as they say, is history. Fusion Wayang Kulit has since performed not just locally, but overseas. It was even acknowledged by LucasFilm and featured in the official Star Wars magazine!
Pak Dain himself performed the show. There were two parts: the traditional story which is an adaptation of the Hindu epic Ramayana, and the modern part which had characters and a story inspired by Star Wars.
To be honest, while I found the traditional puppets beautiful, the story was difficult for me to follow as it was presented in Kelantanese Malay (a dialect that is very different from standard Malay).
There was a break in between the two sessions, where we were introduced to the concept behind Fusion Wayang Kulit, and how they designed the characters for the ‘new’ story. They’re all based on traditional characters, so “Sang Kala Veda” (Darth Vader) is based on the villain, while Puteri Leia is based on Rama’s wife, basically the heroine of the story.
The character designs are mind blowing. There’s so much attention to detail and respect for the source material, both new and old. Take Darth Vader’s face – which has been designed with fangs (similar to the villain), yet retains that triangular motif. We were also told that Malaysian wayang kulit is distinctly different from its Indonesian counterpart in terms of looks and design. Malaysian wayang kulit characters usually ride on ‘dragons’ or a platform of sorts (the Javanese version does not have this). So to suit the Star Wars theme, they made Darth Vader’s platform a smaller version of the Executor. Brilliant!
Pak Dain performed the Star Wars story in standard Malay, which made it much easier to understand. Here Puteri Leia gives R2D2 the Death Star plans. Did I mention how beautiful the puppets are? They look modern yet traditional at the same time. Perfectly embodies the ‘fusion’ theme!
When the show ended, the audience gave a standing ovation. I truly hope that with this modernization of an ancient art form, they can continue to keep it alive and relevant to a new audience.
Sadly, there are not many puppet masters left in Kelantan, where Malaysian wayang kulit originates from. Once popular at family gatherings and other communal events, puppet shows were banned in Kelantan after the Islamic political party PAS came into power in 1990 (they banned it in 1998), as they deemed it “un-Islamic” (they also banned the Mak Yong, a traditional dance, but lifted this ban in 2019, subject to conditions). Now, wayang kulit shows can ONLY be performed at the cultural centre in Kota Bharu. Can’t help but feel like it’s a ‘token’ that they use to attract tourists, rather than a genuine art form celebrated for its historic value and artistry.
But I digress.
Even if you’re not a Star Wars fan, I highly recommend catching the Fusion Wayang Kulit show! Support the local arts, because I don’t think it’s promoted enough by the relevant bodies. To see ordinary Malaysians of different races and beliefs banding together to keep this old art form alive – not backed by any special funding, only driven by a love for the country and its arts – is, to me, the true spirit of Malaysia.
You can learn more about Fusion Wayang Kulit here. They also have a gallery in Kuala Lumpur.